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Landmarks: Dante offers glimpse into Cloverdale’s history

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 | Posted by

Except for the fresh paint and neon signs, the Dante still looks pretty much like it has for the past 125 years. (Photo: Will Layfield)

By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS correspondent

When the Chamber of Commerce invited KZST’s Brent Farris and Debbie Abrams for a tour of Cloverdale, the radio personalities specifically requested a visit to the Dante be included in their itinerary.

That’s not too surprising since Harold’s Dante Hotel & Bar on the corner of Railroad Avenue and S. East Street is something of a Cloverdale institution.

Constructed of local redwood in 1888, it was originally known as the New Toscano. Although no longer used for lodging, it is still one of Cloverdale’s oldest businesses and holds the distinction of being the town’s longest running hotel.

Italian immigrant Ermete Giannecchini operated it from 1922 until 1936 when ownership was passed to his daughter, Tosca Bianchini, and her husband, Marino. The Bianchinis changed the name to the Dante Hotel and continued to run it as a hotel, bar and restaurant until they retired in 1976.

For more than 40 years, the Dante was Tosca Bianchini’s home away from home. (Photo: Jack Howell)

Located across from the town’s original train station, the Dante was a bustling place during the 1930’s and 40’s. With six commuter trains and innumerable freight trains traveling the rails daily between San Rafael and Eureka, the Bianchinis were kept busy cooking for their steady boarders, train crews, passengers and the general public.

The war years were difficult for their business, but by raising a large garden and lots of rabbits to supplement their allotted food stamp rations, they were able to provide plenty of food for their customers. Mama Tosca, as she came to be known, served Italian home-style cooking and the table was always full.

Lumber mills came to Cloverdale in the 1950’s and with them countless large lumber trucks. This was a wonderful boon for the Dante, as well as for the town.

Mama Tosca was big in personality, but very small in stature. When she drove her car, it sometimes looked like no one was behind the wheel. “She had to look through the space between the steering wheel and the dash,” recalls Geri Giovannetti. “Back then, steering wheels were a lot bigger.”

Janet Domeniconi, whose late father Jack Howell worked as a meter reader for PG&E, says the Dante and the Bianchini’s house were both on her dad’s meter reading route. “Mama Tosca always made lunch for him during his monthly visits and they became great friends.”

In 1972, the City of Cloverdale honored her as “Woman of the Year.” She later said it was the proudest moment in her career and in her life.

When it came time to retire, the Bianchinis made a conscious decision to sell the property to someone who wouldn’t come in and make a lot of structural changes. They recognized the building’s historical significance and felt it was important a new owner did, too.

After several discussions with their friend, the late Harold Amelung, an agreement was reached for him and his wife, Lorine, better known as “Moe,” to buy the building and take over the business.

Amelung’s son, Cort, who first started going to the Dante in the 60’s for Mama Tosca’s home cooked meals, says there were still ice boxes along the east wall next to the regular refrigerators when his folks took over.

To date, the only structural change has been relocating the long bar to the west wall to open up the room.

Many modes of transportation have been used by patrons of the Dante over the years, as evidenced by this undated photo from the Cloverdale Historical Society’s archives.

Like Mama Tosca, Moe prepared hearty meals, too. Instead of Italian cuisine, however, she made hot dishes like stews and pasta, serving them family style to her guests.

By 1979, except for three permanent residents upstairs, the Amelungs got out of the hotel business. About the same time, Moe hung up her apron and they stopped serving meals.

Today, it is operated strictly as a bar by Cort and his wife, Marilynn.  Open daily until 2 a.m., their busiest times of the year are following the annual Crab Cioppino Feed and during the Citrus Fair.

Most patrons arrive on foot or in motor vehicles, however there are still one or two who occasionally arrive on horseback. There have even been a few over the years who’ve tried to bring their horse inside with them.

Once in a while, someone will bring a guitar for an impromptu performance, mostly locals like Adam Herman and Josh Bishop.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), whose fans are affectionately called “gearheads,” even played there in the late 70’s.

The Dante had its “five minutes of fame” when Hollywood came to town in 1973 and chose it as one of the film locations for the comedy-suspense thriller, Slither, starring James Caan and Sally Kellerman.  Not to be outdone, Cloverdale’s Fire Department got into the act, too, by creating make-believe rain for one of the outdoor scenes.

After 125 years, the Dante building still looks pretty much the same as it always has, and according to the Amelungs, there are no plans to make any changes any time soon.

More Sonoma County landmarks:

Healdsburg’s Memorial Bridge spans a century

Churches of west county

Korbel has deep roots in Wine Country

Windsor’s 3rd Methodist church

Gateway to a ‘Friendly City’

Sonoma City Hall, basalt heart of the city

Santa Rosa’s tower of downtown history

Petaluma clock, still ticking

  • Nancy Turpen Lucas

    I love your history lessons. There is so much more than meets the eye in Cloverdale. Please keep the info coming!

    • Mary Jo Winter

      Thanks, Nancy. I love doing the research and then sharing what I’ve discovered.

  • Jean

    Interesting story Mary Jo. Keep them coming.

  • Chris

    Great history ! Always the best stories Mary Jo !

  • http://www.anncarranzacreations.com Ann Carranza

    Wonderful story, Mary Jo! Great job keeping history alive for all of us.

  • Sue Jackson

    Once again, another MJW story on the rich history of Cloverdale… Thank you for sharing all your wonderful research and Cloverdale’s history.

  • Kim

    Great Story Mary Jo. Love the History. Thank you. I remember Dinners there when I was younger when my Mom and Grandpa Mariani cooked dinners for everyone.

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Mary Jo Winter is our Cloverdale correspondent.
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